Since the end of Taliban rule in 2001, Afghanistan has struggled with inter-ethnic and inter-religious violence, lagging economic development, endemic corruption and a lack of transparency, and a difficulty balancing the need for a strong central government with the desires of its very diverse population for self-government closer to home.
To show alternative systems of governance and cross-communal collaboration, Meridian recently partnered with the US embassy in Kabul and Cooperation for Peace and Unity (CPAU), a well regarded Afghan NGO, on a series of exchanges for local leaders from all over Afghanistan, including mayors, provincial council members, and provincial governors’ staffs, as well as a separate exchange for members of Afghanistan’s High Peace Council, which was established by former President Hamid Karzai to oversee the government’s peace negotiations with the Taliban insurgency. Delegates met with the Muslim-American community to talk about religious freedom and ethnic and religious diversity (both within the community itself and within wider US society) and with state and local officials to talk about how local government is often best equipped to serve community needs.
The one aspect of the exchange that nearly every visitor found extremely impactful was how different the Muslim-American community is in reality versus how it is portrayed in Afghan media. Delegates were amazed above all that the community is made of ethnicities from all over the world and that different Muslim schools of thought generally coexist peacefully with each other and with wider American society. Community organizing to meet local needs at the source, whether through a mosque operating a food bank or health clinic or a local Muslim community coming together to create a school, were examples that visitors will take back to Afghanistan. Everyone was highly impressed that local communities are empowered with these freedoms and take initiative to act on them.
Delegates were also surprised by the fact that state and local government plays a bigger role in Americans’ lives than the national government in meetings with state and local officials in Texas, California, and Michigan. In Afghanistan, provincial governors are appointed by the President, and all provincial funds come from the national government. Provinces have to defer to national Ministries in areas like education and policing. While Afghanistan has many years before provincial governments will have the capacity to directly implement these services, the programs showed visitors a model that only a leadership exchange could.
Finally, while visitors left impressed with how America was so diverse yet largely peaceful and could provide hopeful stories to share in Afghanistan, the post-exchange period brought sad news, as one of the local government members, a poet and a prominent member of Afghanistan’s minority Shia community, was assassinated, likely for his religion. While visitors believe that Afghanistan has made great strides since 2001, they realize that there is a long way still to go.